On dangerous air & the damnation of cyanobacteria.

On dangerous air & the damnation of cyanobacteria.

During the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, I kept thinking of Margarita Engle’s poem “More Dangerous Air.” The title seemed particularly resonant, and its a beautiful poem about growing up in an atmosphere of fear.

Newsmen call it the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Teachers say it’s the end of the world.

Engle documents the way we might flail, attempting to protect ourselves & our loved ones. We know enough to be afraid; we don’t yet know enough to be safe.

Early in the pandemic, people left their groceries on the front steps for days before bringing the bags inside. A year in, we were still needlessly scrubbing surfaces with toxic chemicals.

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During the missile crisis, school children practiced fire drills, earthquake drills, tornado drills, air raid drills. (They didn’t yet need the contemporary era’s most awful: the active shooter drills.)

Hide under a desk.

Pretend that furniture is enough

to protect us against perilous flames.

Radiation. Contamination. Toxic breath.

The blasts are dangerous. But warfare with atomic weapons is different from other forms of violence. A bomb might kill you, suddenly; the poisoned air might kill you, slowly; the poisoned ground might maim generations yet unborn.

Each air-raid drill is sheer terror,

but some kids giggle.

They don’t believe that death

is real.

Radiation is invisible. Marie Curie didn’t know that it would kill her. Rosalind Franklin didn’t know that it would kill her.

We know, now. At least, some of us do.

Others – including a perilously large cadre of politicians – still think we ought to stockpile a behemoth nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear bomb: photograph by Kelly Michals on flickr.

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Viruses are invisible. And they act slowly. Breathe in an invisible virus; a week later, you might begin to cough; three weeks later, your cough might worsen; a month after that seemingly innocuous breath in which you sucked a microscopic package of genetic code into your lungs, you might be in the hospital, or worse.

Connecting an eventual death to that first dangerous breath is actually a tricky cognitive feat! The time lag confuses us. It’s much easier for human minds to draw conclusions about closely consecutive events – a vaccine followed within hours or days by fever or heart problems.

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Greenhouse gases are also invisible. If we drive past a power plant, we might see plumes rising from the towers, but we can’t see poison spilling from our cars, our refrigerators, our air conditioners, our meals. This is just good food on a plate! It doesn’t look like danger.

But we are changing the air, dramatically, in ways that might poison us all. Or – which is perhaps worse – in ways that might not affect us so much, but might make this planet inhospitable to our unborn grandchildren. Perhaps we will be fine. It’s humans born twenty years from now, or fifty years from now, who will suffer more.

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Each individual can take action. You, as an individual, could fly less, buy less, eat plants.

And yet.

You, as an individual, can only do so much.

When I hide under my frail school desk,

my heart grows as rough and brittle

as the slab of wood

that fails to protect me

from reality’s

gloom.

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We aren’t the first. Go outside and look around – the vibrant bursts of summer green are delightfully entrancing.

Our minds are plastic things – we make ourselves through the ways we live – but certain scripts were sculpted by our ancestry. Over hundreds of millions of years, the bearers of certain types of brains were more likely to be successful in life.

Creatures like us – who need air to breath, water to drink, shelter from sun and cold – often feel an innate love for the way summer light plays over a heady mix of blue and green.

We need all that green. The plants, the trees, the algae: for humans to survive the climate crisis we’ve been making, we’re depending on them. We need them to eat carbon dioxide from the air, and drink in hydrogen atoms from water, and toss back oxygen for us to breathe.

We’ve been poisoning the air, and they might save us.

Which is ironic, in a way. Because all that green – they wrought our planet’s first global devastation.

Saving us all this time would be like a form of penance.

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Early in our planet’s history, there was very little oxygen in the air. Which was a good thing for the organisms living then! Oxygen is a very dangerous molecule. When we fall apart with age, it’s largely because “oxidative damage” accumulates in our cells. When grocery stores market a new type of berry as a “superfood,” they often extol its abundance of “antioxidants,” small molecules that might protect us from the ravages of oxygen.

The first living organisms were anaerobic: they did not need, and could not tolerate, oxygen. They obtained energy from sulfur vents or various other chemicals.

But then a particular type of bacteria – cyanobacteria – evolved a way to eat air, pulling energy from sunlight. This was the precursor to modern photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria began to fill the air with (poisonous!) oxygen as waste.

Many years passed safely, though. There was abundant iron then, on land and in the seas – iron drew down oxygen to rust.

Approximately two billion years passed without incident. All that iron buffered our planet’s atmosphere! It must have seemed as though the cyanobacteria could excrete a nearly infinite amount!

But then they reached a tipping point. The iron had all become iron oxides. The concentration of oxygen in the air rose dramatically. This hyper-reactive poison killed almost everything alive.

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Perhaps cyanobacteria were punished for what they’d done. By filling the world with oxygen, they enabled the evolution of organisms with higher metabolisms. Creatures who lived faster, shorter lives, turbocharged by all that dangerous air. And these creatures – our forebears – nearly grazed their enablers out of existence.

Cyanobacteria were once masters of the universe. Then they were food.

And they were imprisoned within the cells of plants. Look up at a tree – each green leaf is a holding cell, brimming with cyanobacteria who are no longer free to live on their own. Grasses, ferns, flowers – every photosynthetic cell home to perhaps dozens of chloroplasts, the descendants of those who caused our planet’s first mass extinction.

A few outlaws linger in the ocean. Some cyanobactera still pumping oxygen into the air, the lethal poison that’s gulped so greedily by human lungs. Their lethal poison now enables our growth, our flourishing, our reckless abasement of the world.

And we are poisoning the air in turn, albeit in a very different way. In our quest to use many years’ stored sunlight each year, we dig up & burn the subterranean remnants of long-dead plants. The prison cells in which cyanobacteria once lived and died, entombed for millions of years within the earth, now the fuel for our own self-imposed damnation. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is slowly rising. Our atmosphere is buffered; for a while, our world will seem unchanged. Until, suddenly, it doesn’t.

Some species, surely, will survive. Will thrive in the hotter, swingier, stormier world we’re making.

It likely won’t be us.

On vengeance and Ahmed Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad.’

On vengeance and Ahmed Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad.’

We are composite creatures, the edifice of our minds perched atop accumulated strata of a lifetime of memories.  Most people, I imagine, have done wrong; remembrance of our lapses is part of who we are.  And most of us have been hurt; those grievances also shape our identities.

We struggle to be good, despite having been born into an amoral universe and then subjected to innumerable slights or traumas as we aged.

Goodness is a nebulous concept, however.  There’s no external metric that indicates what we should do.  For instance: if we are subject to an injustice, is it better to forgive or to punish the transgressor?

There are compelling arguments for both sides, and for each position you could base your reasoning on philosophy, psychology, physiology, evolutionary biology …

Intellect and reasoning can’t identify what we should do.

A wide variety of cooperative species will swiftly and severely punish transgressions in order to maintain social order.  Misbehavior among naked mole rats is generally resolved through bullying and violence, which ensures the colony does not lapse into decadence.  (As with humans, shared adversity like hunger generally compels threat-free cooperation.)

Archaeologists suggest that the belief in vengeful gods was coupled to the development of complex human societies.  The Code of Hammurabi prescribed immediate, brutal retribution for almost any misdeed.

The compulsion to punish people who have hurt us arises from deep within our brains.

But punishment invites further punishment.  Every act of revenge can lead to yet another act of revenge – the Hatfield and McCoy families carried on their feud for nearly thirty years.

Punishment is fueled by anger, and anger poisons our bodies.  On a purely physiological level, forgiving others allows us to heal.  The psychological benefits seem to be even more pronounced.

But forgiveness is hard.  Sometimes people do terrible things.  After her mother was killed, my spouse had to spend her entire afternoon prep period on the phone with a family member and the prosecutor, convincing them not to seek the death penalty.

The attack had been recorded by security cameras.  Apparently it was horrifying to watch.  The assailant’s defense lawyer stated publicly that it was “the most provable murder case I have ever seen.

And incidents in which dark-skinned men hurt white women are precisely those for which prosecutors typically seek the death penalty; after my mother-in-law’s death, the only national news sites that wrote about the case were run by far-right white supremacists trying to incite more hatred and violence toward innocent black people.  (I’m including no links to these, obviously.)

At the time, I was working on a series of poems about teaching in jail. 

Correction (pt. ii)

My wife’s mother was murdered Saturday –

outside at four a.m., scattering birdseed,

smoking a cigarette, shucking schizophrenic

nothings into the unlistening air.

Then a passing man tossed off a punch,

knocking her to the ground.

He stomped upon her skull

till there was no more her

within that battered brain.

Doctors intubated the corpse &

kept it oxygenated by machine,

monitoring each blip of needless heart

for days

until my wife convinced

a charitable neurologist

to let the mindless body rest.

That same afternoon

I taught another class in jail

for men who hurt someone else’s mother,

daughter, or son.

The man who murdered,

privacy-less New York inmate #14A4438

with black hair & brown eyes,

had been to prison twice,

in 2002 & 2014,

caught each time

with paltry grams of crack cocaine.

Our man received a massive dose

of state-sponsored therapy:

nine years of penitence.

Nearly a decade of correction.

Does Victor Frankenstein share the blame

for the murders of his creation,

the man he quicked but did not love?

Or can we walk into a maternity ward

and point:

that one, nursing now, will be a beast.

Are monsters born or made?

My mother-in-law is dead, & our man is inside again,

apprehended after “spontaneous utterances,”

covered in blood, photographed with

a bandage between his eyes.

And we, in our mercy,

will choose whether

our creation

deserves

to die.

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Victor Frankenstein becoming disgusted at his creation. Fronts-piece to the 1831 edition.

I have always stood firmly on the side of Frankenstein’s creation.  Yes, he began to kill, but misanthropy was thrust upon him.  The creature was ethical and kind at first, but the rest of the world ruthlessly mistreated him.  Victor Frankenstein abandoned him in the laboratory; he befriended a blind man, but then the man’s children chased him away.

Victor Frankenstein’s fiancée did not deserve to be strangled – except insofar as we share blame for the crimes of those we love – but I understand the wellspring of the creature’s rage.

In Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, a junk dealer’s attempt to honor the anonymous victims of Iraq’s many bombings gives rise to a spirit of vengeance.  The junk dealer acts upon a grisly idea – most victims could not receive proper funerals because their bodies were scattered or incinerated by the blasts.  But what if many stray pieces were collected?  An charred arm from Tuesday’s explosion; a ribcage and lower jawbone from Wednesday’s; two different victims’ legs from Thursday’s.  The city is so wracked by violence that there are plenty of body parts to choose from.  And then the junk dealer could take his creation to the police and say, Look!  Here is a body, victim of the attacks.  Here is a dead man we can honor properly.

In truth, the junk dealer’s plan was never terribly well thought out.  Once he completes the corpse, he realizes that using his creation as a locus for lamentation would be no better than all the empty coffins.

And then the corpse springs to life, seeking vengeance on any and all who wronged its component parts.  In the creature’s words (as translated by Jonathan Wright):

“My list of people to seek revenge on grew longer as my old body parts fell off and my assistants added parts from my new victims, until one night I realized that under these circumstances I would face an open-ended list of targets that would never end.

“Time was my enemy, because there was never enough of it to accomplish my mission, and I started hoping that the killing in the streets would stop, cutting off my supply of victims and allowing me to melt away.

“But the killing had only begun.  At least that’s how it seemed from the balconies in the building I was living in, as dead bodies littered the streets like rubbish.”

Soon, the creature realizes that the people he attacks are no different from the dead victims that he is composed of.  He can chase after the terrorist organizations that orchestrate suicide bombings, but the people in those organizations are also seeking revenge for their dead allies.  The chain of causality is so tangled that no one is clearly responsible.

Car bombing in Baghdad. Image from Wikimedia.

United States forces have been inadvertently killing innocent civilians ever since invading Iraq … an attack that was launched in retribution for the actions of a small group of Afghani terrorists.

Some people thought that this sounded reasonable at the time.

To seek vengeance, we need someone to blame.  But who should I blame for my mother-in-law’s death?  The man who assaulted her?  That’s certainly the conclusion that the white supremacist news sites want me to reach.  But I sincerely doubt that this poor man would have hurt her if a prosecutor hadn’t ripped him from his friends and family, condemning him to ten years within the nightmarish violence of America’s prisons, all for participating in a small-scale version of the exact same economic transaction that allowed Merck to become a $160-billion-dollar valued company.

Do I blame the racist white legislators who imposed such draconian punishments on the possession of the pure amine form of cocaine, all while celebrating their pale-skinned buddies who snerked up the hydrochloride salt form?

Do I blame myself?  As a citizen of this country – a wealthy citizen, no less, showered with un-earned privilege – I am complicit in the misfortunes that my nation imposes on others.  Even when I loathe the way this nation acts, by benefiting from its sins, I too share responsibility.

I have inherited privilege … which means that I also deserve to inherit blame, even for horrors perpetrated well before I was born.

Forgiveness is hard, but revenge would send us chasing an endless cycle of complicity.  The creature in Frankenstein in Baghdad is flummoxed:

In his mind he still had a long list of the people he was supposed to kill, and as fast as the list shrank it was replenished with new names, making avenging these lives an endless task.  Or maybe he would wake up one day to discover that there was no one left to kill, because the criminals and the victims were entangled in a way that was more complicated than ever before.

“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”  This sentence drilled its way into his head like a bullet out of the blue.  He stood in the middle of the street and looked up at the sky, waiting for the final moment when he would disintegrate into his original components.  This was the realization that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was also a victim.  The victim proportion in some of them might even be higher than the criminal proportion, so he might inadvertently be made up of the most innocent parts of the criminals’ bodies.

“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”

Header image: an illustration of Frankenstein at work in his laboratory.